An In-Depth Chat with Martin Sahlin, Creator of Unravel

This week, I spent some time at Coldwood Interactive, a small studio in a small city in Northen Sweden. Coldwood has been working on a game called Unravel, which made a big splash when it was announced during EA’s E3 press conference. Since then, the game has picked up a bunch of accolades wherever it’s been unveiled and has won a bunch of awards at various shows and conventions along the way.  Along with these accolades, the main character of the game, ‘Yarny’, has become somewhat of a cult hit.  His unique appearance and style already inspiring fan art and photography months before the game is to be released.

Along with some hands on time with Unravel, I had the chance to speak with Coldwood’s Creative Director, Martin Sahlin along with Dick Adolfsson, Art Direction & Level Design.  After they had subjected me to a taste of the team’s homemade Carolina Reaper Chilli liquor (google ‘Carolina Reaper’ and be impressed by our toughness), we moved into the studio’s demonstration room. We lounged on a couch to chat while Martin played through the first few levels of the game that he has so lovingly crafted.

Unravel office

Where the magic happens. Coldwood Interactive’s work space.

[Hardcore Gamer] Let’s start with the basics. How did Unravel come to be? 

[Martin Sahlin] It was a long process that led up to it, but the actual moment of inspiration was a song.  A friend of mine sang at my wedding.  It was just a line that popped up in my head and I had this thought about if love and the bonds between people were actual real, physical bonds. Like strands of yarn.  We could make a game where you play as a character that is made from yarn and you’re trying to tie people back together. I just thought that was a beautiful concept for a game.  Like, you would be unravelling as you played through the game and you’re basically just trying to tie it all together.  Then I went on vacation with my family and I was out in the woods, head buzzing with ideas. So I figured that I had to make them into something.

[Martin fails a jump and Yarny dies] NOOO.  That was poorly played!

Yeah, I had to make something of it. Since I was miles away from everything, out in the woods and by the coast, I didn’t have anything to work with. So that’s when I figured that I could make a doll and try to act out the gameplay.  So I peeled some wire from an anchor cable from an old boat. Like a really, rusty old cable and built a skeleton from that. Then I managed to borrow some yarn from this kid that was camping out nearby. — it’s one of those things. I told this story at PAX in Australia and everybody starts laughing and I’m like “this actually happened.” So there was a punk rock kid who was camping out nearby [laughs], and he was knitting and he had red yarn and I was like “is this even real?” So I ask him “can I have some of that?” He was super curious and asking me what I needed it for.  So I told him that he could wait two years and then he would know.

At that time, it felt kind of like… [Pauses to think] you know in Harry Potter, when they drink the liquid luck potion? He has this feeling that whatever he does, it just can’t go wrong.  That was pretty much that day. I was running around with that doll in the woods, just snapping pictures and everything.  It felt like… like fortune is smiling at you right now.  You know, you feel like it’s not so much that you’re…It doesn’t even feel like you’re creating stuff.  It feels like you’re just finding things that are almost already there because they just fit together so well.  They just flow together so naturally, so it feels almost like you’re cheating.

The thing was that we’d just had a project cancelled at the time.  So everybody was basically fired and so when I went off on vacation, I didn’t totally expect to have a job to come back to at all.  But the odd thing about it was, instead of feeling stressed out over that, it felt oddly liberating. I think, when you make games, you spend so much time worrying about failure for some stupid reason, but that time I just didn’t worry at all.  I felt like, you know, I’m just going to write whatever I want because I have nothing to lose.  And, uh, it turned out really nice.

What was your family thinking while you were wandering around with this doll?

Uhhh… Well, they couldn’t see it at first because I didn’t want to show it right away. So what I did, was I spent the entire day taking all of these pictures because I wanted this fresh reaction from them.  So they hadn’t seen anything when I showed them the pictures.  You know, when you see them react to the pictures; then you know that this thing is actually something.  This is a really valuable thing.  This could turn out great, because it was really cool to see them.  You see the light go on in their eyes and you get so excited by it.

So that was your — let’s call it conceptual inspiration — were there any media inspirations? Like other games, etc?

Well, a lot of the actual gameplay was born from just playing in the woods with the doll.  Because I had the theme and I knew the theme was an important part of it.  I knew that it mattered but I didn’t know how it would actually play. I have this thing I do, that when I design stuff I try to do it with a controller in my hands.  That way I can imagine what the game would feel like. I think it’s a really good approach. This was sort of an even more extreme version of that.  I mean, I had the physical doll and the physical environment. I could look at things and see like, “okay I’m about this big.  What type of obstacles would I come across? What type of skills would I have?”  So, basically the gameplay was born out of that.  Just playing with the doll and seeing what it could do and what kind of situations you could put it in. So I mean, obviously you are always inspired by other things, but not just things that you’ve played.  Things that you’ve read, artwork that you’ve seen; or in this case, music you’ve listened to. Things like that.

Inspiration is mixed of many, many different things.  I also think that the environment was a huge inspiration as well.  That’s why the game is so very Swedish and why nature is at the forefront the whole time.  It wouldn’t have been the same game if I had designed it in any other environment.  I was out there in the woods with the coast nearby with these cliffs and all these cool things that you could just mess around with and put Yarny in silly situations.  It was great. It was very inspirational.

Unravel3

“I was out there in the woods with the coast nearby with these cliffs and all these cool things that you could just mess around with and put Yarny in silly situations.”

So while you were certain about your idea, what about the rest of Coldwood when you said “hey, I want to make this game about a little dude made from yarn that runs around?”

It’s wildly different from everything else that we’ve done.  The cool thing is that people embraced it; I think people got it. I’m not sure it was entirely conscious thought to begin with. The important thing was to make something that felt like it was ours; a lot of the games that we made before felt like work-for-hire.  They were concepts that we didn’t super care about or feel very strongly about.  So when I started doing this and I took those pictures, looked at all that environment and it just felt like this feels very much like me and I think that’s something I want everybody else that works on it to feel as well. This is something of us; this is from our hearts.

As a developer, how do you go about injecting heart into a game?

[contemplates]  Yeah, the formula…[laughs] it is kind of hard.  It’s like, you know with a well-cooked meal or something, you can sort of taste the love that someone put into it. I think that’s just it. You have to care really deeply about what you are doing. You have to be willing to go the extra mile, to turn the extra corner.  [pauses again] I don’t know. We live in the source material, which helps.  Also this whole thing where everybody has really been moving in the same direction and everybody has been really passionate about.  So every little aspect, just like that little kite ride thing (a portion of the game that we experienced in our hands-on time before the interview), it’s a little thing that just pops up for fun and you see it once in the game and you don’t ever see it again. It takes about twenty seconds to do, but so much thought and care has gone into that.  How it should handle, how it should control, how it should feel and how we want people to react to it.  It’s things like that [that add heart to the game].

Speaking before this interview, you mentioned that pitching games is hard.  In previous interviews, you’ve spoken about how it wasn’t so hard in this case. What do you think separates Unravel with your previous projects? The ones that you’ve wanted to make, but that you haven’t had a chance to.

Well, one thing that separates it is that we didn’t pitch it as an idea.  We pitched it as a fairly well-developed concept.   I wrote that initial pitch and showed that to everybody here. Then we built a demo for it that was quite well developed before we showed it to EA and all of those people.

So if you want to give people an actual tip for how to pitch a game, it helps to pitch a game that looks finished [laughs].  Also, I think what’s special about this is just how people really resonate with this idea, with this whole theme about love and bonds between people. It’s something that people just get, which is really cool.  Usually the problem for most creators is just communicating your ideas and just making sure that everybody understands it deeply the way you do.  With this game, it was never a problem.

We were off on one of these photo shoots — one of the really early photo shoots — and then there was this one guy from the studio who was on paternity leave.  So he was at home in the country with his kids. He didn’t have any clue about what we were working on. We had just stopped over at his house  for coffee because we were in the area when I told him about it. Then it was like thirty seconds later when he was like “yeah I have the perfect thing out in the barn, you should come look at this”. So he was into it.  He was in full on ‘create mode’ right away; it is super cool when you just see people take off.

unravel5

In relation to influencing people, you spoke in your E3 press conference about having a responsibility to your players. Can you elaborate on that?

The thing was that I had this kind of moment of realization.  A lot of different things led up to the development of this game.  There was this one spark of inspiration, but when it actually turned into a game, it was more like “this is the sum of everything that I’ve learned during quite a lot of years of game development.”

I had this moment of realization when we did a fighting game a couple of years back.  It reviewed really poorly and it wasn’t that great but it still sold well.  It reached hundreds of thousands of people, which is a surreal amount of people when you think about it.  So I had this thought where I swapped the context out. Imagine you have the undivided attention of six hundred thousand people for eight hours of time. Imagine you’re in a soapbox talking to that many people and you don’t have anything worthwhile to say. You don’t have anything worth remembering. You have nothing that they should cherish and keep. That’s wasted time. I’ve wasted my time and I’ve wasted their time. That’s a terrible thing to do because time is a precious thing and should be treated with care.

So that’s why I figured I didn’t want to make games like that anymore.  I didn’t want to make games that weren’t about anything.  It’s not like a game has to change the world or anything like that. A game doesn’t have to be preaching or anything.  It’s even okay for games to be about pure escapism, to be about entertainment or whatever but I don’t think it’s okay for all games to be like that. I think some games have to try to give players more.  Just give them something to think about.  Inspire them, you know?  Give them something worthwhile.  That’s the reasoning behind it. It’s why I wanted to make something that had something meaningful to say.

At this point, Dick Adolfsson joins us. Dick is a co-founder of the studio and does art direction & level design.

Continue to Page 2 →